How to Organize and Celebrate a Traditional Russian Christmas

It’s true that the Russians don’t celebrate Christmas the way people do in the West. The history of a European-style Christmas complete with Santa and the tree was brief: from the mid-1840s when this German tradition suddenly became en vogue in St Petersburg, until 1914 when the First World War inspired the Russian government to ban all things German. Before and after that, Christmas in Russia was (and still is) a strictly religious holiday that doesn’t include a gift-bringing Father Christmas or a Christmas tree.

In 1926, Christmas was banished altogether, along with other religious events, as the newly-born Soviet Union announced itself an atheist country. By 1935 though, the Soviet government realized that denying its citizens a mid-winter holiday might not have been such a clever idea.

In order to reintroduce some fun into the Russians’ life (but unable to bring back the “obsolete” religious Christmas), Joseph Stalin ordered to move the winter holiday season to New Year’s Day. From then on, instead of the Christmas tree, the New Year Tree is put up in Russia on New Year’s Eve, and kids receive their gifts on January 1 — delivered by Father Frost in his sleigh, and not by Father Christmas.

Christmas Traditions in Russia: How to Organize a Real Russian Christmas

So how do the Russians celebrate Christmas these days? If they’re atheists, they simply don’t. The Russian Christmas is reserved (as the name of the holiday actually implies) for Christians, or rather, the Russian Orthodox Christians who still follow the ancient Julian calendar, currently 13 days behind the rest of the world. This is why the Russian Christmas is celebrated on January 7, which is December 25 according to the Julian calendar.

For the Russian Orthodox Christians, Christmas is second to Easter in its importance: a major church holiday preceded by a forty-day long vegan fast. Christmas Eve is the toughest day of the whole fast when you can’t eat a thing all day until the first star lights up in the sky: the symbol of the star that led the Three Wise Men to Baby Jesus. After that, everybody enjoys a meal of twelve vegan dishes (including a festive exception of one fish course) before going to church for the midnight Christmas service. In days of old, caroling was common, especially in villages, and these days the tradition is in the process of being restored.

In the morning, the family sits down to a table groaning with meat, fish and dairy. Traditionally, a whole roasted pig used to be served to numerous guests. This marks the beginning of the Twelve Days of Christmas (Svyatki) that end with another day of total abstinence from all food before the Theophany (the day Jesus was baptized by St John) on January 19.

In Russia, the Twelve Days of Christmas are considered relatively safe to play with the devil and fool him. That’s why they are reserved for some quality fortune-telling and various magic rituals, especially where young girls want to know more about their future husbands and married life.

December 25 Opens the Festive Winter Season in Russia

As for the Western Christmas of December 25, the Russians call it “the Catholic Christmas”. Until about the mid-1990s, it was virtually unknown in Russia, but recently, the tradition has started to sink in. These days, December 25 serves as an unofficial opener of the holiday season that culminates on New Year’s night.

As Father Frost has already brought his gifts to Russian kids on January 1, he doesn’t come again on January 7. But the New Year tree normally stays in Russian homes until mid-January. If you remember that the Julian calendar is 13 days behind, then, if you add 13 days to January 1, you get January 14 — the unofficial Julian “Old New Year’s Day” and basically, just an excuse for more partying. By the Old New Year’s Day of January 14, the Russians are supposed to have test-driven their New Year’s resolutions so now they can start living them in all seriousness.

Please note: There is no Russian Christmas character called Babushka. The story Babushka and the Three Wise Men has nothing to do with Russian Christmas traditions and is just an admittedly adorable literary exercise by an English-speaking author.There is no such legend in the Russian folklore whatsoever.

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